China deploys a favorite weapon in the coronavirus crisis: A crackdown on VPNs

February 26, 2020, 12:00 AM UTC

For the last few weeks, Ryan, a young American media professional based in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, has been working from home due to the outbreak of coronavirus.

For his work, Ryan depends on a virtual private network or VPN to bypass China’s ‘Great Firewall,’ or the limits the Chinese government has imposed on Internet users within its mainland borders. He uses a paid platform called ExpressVPN that masks his location, allowing him to access the open, uncensored Internet. He says that logging onto foreign sites blocked in China—like The New York Times, Facebook, and Google—is “integral” to his work in media. But for a week in early February, the lifeline was cut completely.

“[The VPN] would take several minutes and ultimately inform me that it could not connect,” said Ryan, who asked to only use his first name due to the political nature of the topic. He said being stuck at home with limited Internet access was “unpleasant at times.” Luckily, after a full week without foreign Internet, his VPN connection returned. What’s more, his office work is resuming, and Guangzhou is getting back to some state of normalcy. Cars, he said, are back on the roads.

But the lull in Ryan’s VPN connection shouldn’t be written off as a temporary bug. In fact, it’s likely part of a bigger trend in which politically-charged moments prompt Beijing to clamp down on conduits that take Internet users beyond its own carefully-crafted digital world. The deadly coronavirus, which started in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year and has since zipped across the globe, is a black mark on Beijing, and has certainly sparked a time of heightened sensitivity.

Operating in the shadows

VPNs prop up a shadow Internet that runs counter to China’s domestic web, and—to some degree—Beijing tolerates it. While the government outlaws private, unregistered VPNs, it allows government-registered ones to operate. The latter—which do, in fact, represent government-approved ways to bypass government censorship—are largely used by foreign and domestic businesses to gain better access to markets abroad, said Jyh-An Lee, a Chinese Internet law expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Despite the ban, users in China can still employ private, unregistered VPNs—like those provided by Express, Astrill, and Nord—to bypass the country’s firewall, so long as they’ve downloaded the platforms before entering the mainland.

A woman takes photos at the Gallery Vittorio Emanuele II, in central Milan, on February 24, 2020. The coronavirus outbreak has now spread in earnest to Europe, deepening the crisis for Beijing.

Multinational corporations in China often subscribe to registered or legal VPNs as a matter of compliance, Lee said. But at the same time, they rely on unregistered VPNs to further insulate themselves from Beijing. (In 2017, the vice president of the U.S.-China Business Council Jacob Parker explained that a sudden unavailability of well-functioning VPNs “would be a disruptive influence on businesses operating [in China].”)

“From a government viewpoint, it’s easier to manage VPN services, if they know who is providing [them],” said Lee. “[That makes] it easier for the government to control what kind of information people can access, even via the VPN.”

Taking both registered and unregistered versions into account, VPN use in China is considered wide-spread, though specific estimates range wildly, with between 1% and 14% of China’s 850 million Internet users relying on the platforms daily.

Gearing up

Generally, China has enforced its VPN ban more forcefully against VPN providers—it recently jailed a man from Jiangsu Province for the offense—than those who simply use the services, though authorities have fined several citizens for such violations.

Nevertheless, Beijing has established a clear pattern of tightening its grip on VPNs when political tensions arise. During last year’s National People’s Congress meeting in March, the largest annual political gathering in China, VPN users complained that they were unable to bypass China’s firewall. Last September, users voiced similar concerns about VPN servers being down in the lead-up to 70th anniversary celebrations of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. During politically-sensitive times, the central government places more emphasis on its own narrative, and censors go into overdrive to shut down the counter arguments available via VPNs.

Charlie Smith, who goes by a pseudonym, runs a website called Greatfire that tracks the performance of VPNs in China. He says that VPN users across China have had increased difficulty using their VPNs during the coronavirus outbreak that started in earnest in late January.

“The current situation for VPNs is very similar to what happens during major government meetings in China,” said Smith. “The authorities throttle VPN usage, rendering use of the foreign Internet near impossible.” Instead, users are left to surf China’s heavily-censored domestic web.

Concern In China As Mystery Virus Spreads
A Chinese woman wears a protective mask on a public bus on February 11, 2020 in Beijing. China’s central government has tightened its grip on the virus narrative as it faces questions of how it handled the outbreak early on.
Kevin Frayer—Getty Images

Smith’s website tracks VPN speeds over a 60-day period, and ten of the top 15 working in China show a significant decline in performance. A company called PureVPN is 70% slower, while Astrill has a 28% lag. ExpressVPN’s speed, however, is only down 5% as of Tuesday, and Nord’s VPN is 8% faster. It seems that after several weeks of poorer functionality, some providers’ speeds have returned to normal or even improved, though it’s not clear if that’s due to the government easing its censorship amid mounting criticism or if some VPNs are just getting better at evading Beijing.

In any case, the slowdown in recent weeks has come amid an uptick in VPN use.

Xiao Qiang, a research scientist at the University of California-Berkeley’s School of Information, said that his research project called the Counter-Power Lab has tracked a significant increase in users trying to access foreign websites through VPNs since late January, when China began putting lockdown measures in place to halt the spread of coronavirus, or Covid-19. He pegs the increase at double or even triple the number of users normally.

Behind the “major surge,” Xiao said, is an appetite for coronavirus information that’s become especially urgent as the government censors outbreak news and as misinformation about it spreads. And with so many employees in China working from home or under lockdown, VPNs are a resource to offset the sense of isolation.

Gaming the system

Harold Li, vice president of ExpressVPN, said his firm “[sees] strong use cases for our service as more businesses employ work-from-home policies.”

ExpressVPN does not serve corporate clients, but, Li said, “small business owners often purchase ExpressVPN subscriptions for their employees to ensure that they are able to secure their Internet connection while working and protect sensitive information from prying eyes.”

China’s crackdown on VPNs, however, is not necessarily a one-way street. Engineers at foreign VPN firms are continually working to open up new pathways between their users in China and servers abroad, just as government censors constantly seek out these avenues and block them.

As Lee puts it: “It’s a cat and mouse game.”

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